All About Estates

The Plague and Charitable Bequests

Tabernacle, 1359, Orsanmichelle, Florence
Tabernacle by Orcagna, 1359, Orsanmichelle, Florence

In 1348 the plague hit Florence – and Europe – hard. Half the population died in this densely populated city of 80,000. One result of this mass die-off was 350,000 florins of bequests to one organization, Orsanmichele, a grain market with a miracle producing Madonna shrine.  How much is 350,000 florins?  It was equal to the annual budget of the richest city in the medieval world.

The COVID-19 crisis has helped us rediscover of past plagues and there are some similarities and some profound differences. There is no question a major health crisis has implications for philanthropy.  This 14th century story raises questions about donor motivation, social influences, and shared trauma.  And it reminds us that charitable bequests are not a new phenomenon. Here are some thoughts.


When times are dark, hope is needed. The Orsanmichele bequests were an expression of hope for the future. A miracle-producing Madonna icon was the best medieval medicine. The money funded a fabulous church that still exists. There will be estate donations made because of COVID and in response to the trauma it has caused.

Death and Planning

The Medieval world had a lot of death. The City of Florence lost 15,000 to pestilence in 1340; 4,000 to famine in 1347; and then the plague hit in 1348, reducing Florence to 42,000 people. Imagine. Does being used to death make people more likely to write a will? Does imminent mortality encourage will drafting? Yes to both questions.


The bubonic plague wiped out whole families and reduced the pool of natural inheritors. At this moment in history, developed northern countries also have fewer natural inheritors due to aging society and low birth rate. The most generous charitable estate donors don’t have kids.

Cause & Mortality

Causes that address life and death, health, and enduring human values have an advantage in attracting gifts by will. When I worked at a cancer hospital I experienced individuals become philanthropists when confronting death. Mortality is a hard fact. The personal crisis mortality provokes often causes us to fight back through giving.

Social Norms

By 1348 in Florence, leaving an estate donation to charity must have been socially acceptable and encouraged. And Florence was known as a city that had 10 lawyers for every one doctor.  Support for estate giving – through social norms and professional services – is as important as cause that is being supported or the generosity.


I’m not an expert on the medieval Florentine tax system, but I’d hazard a guess that there were no tax incentives for giving. While planning professionals focus on tax, many estate donors give it little or no thought. In contrast to the generous Canadian tax regime, many other countries, including the US, have minimal tax incentives for estate donations. And yet people still give.

Windfall Effect

The windfall bequests to Orsanmichele  caused overspending. The open-air market was enclosed, enlarged, and richly decorated. The signature piece was a marble tabernacle by the artist Orcagna to hold the Madonna and Child icon. The tabernacle cost 82,000 florins, which made it the most expensive single piece of art for at least 300 years. That amount could have built three churches.  The spending at Orsanmichele had such an economic effect that it helped lift Florence out the collapse to launch the Renaissance.

COVID-19 is not the bubonic plague, thankfully, but it is the biggest global crisis since World War II. This virus is likely to influence the way people engage in estate planning and philanthropy.  Stay tuned.

About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.


  1. Catharine E Williams

    April 23, 2020 - 3:25 pm

    Very interesting history lesson! Thanks for sharing!

    • Malcolm Burrows

      April 23, 2020 - 3:28 pm

      Thanks Cathy. Appreciate your note and interest. Malcolm

  2. Gali Gelbart

    April 24, 2020 - 4:29 pm

    Interesting thoughts on the ripple effects of these mass events!

  3. Jen Pederson

    May 19, 2020 - 8:56 pm

    Very nicely done, Malcolm!

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